Israel and Hizballah: A Fight to the Finish?

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Israel wants Hizballah disarmed

For Israel, this is a fight to the finish — or, at least, that's the way it's being packaged. Even though Hizballah does not have the means to destroy Israel, the leaders of the Jewish state have made clear that they will settle for nothing less than the destruction of Hizballah as a military threat along their northern border. Israel is using a fight picked by Hizballah as an opportunity, not to restore the status quo, but to destroy that status quo by removing Hizballah's capability to initiate such confrontations. The U.S. is backing that objective: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that a traditional cease-fire won't help; the U.S. wants a "cessation of violence," by which it means disarming Hizballah in line with the previous U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

Israel has demanded that the Lebanese government implement 1559, but harbors no illusions that Beirut is capable of doing so. So, Israel is mounting a military campaign in pursuit of that goal, launching air strikes in what might be preparation for a ground invasion to destroy Hizballah's missile capability in southern Lebanon. Israel has targeted Lebanon's transport infrastructure to prevent weapons and fighters from reaching the frontline, as well as attacking the movement's political command in the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Beirut. The ferocity of Hizballah's response — its rockets have shown a greater range than Israel anticipated — has simply reinforced Israel's determination to use force to eliminate the missile threat to its population centers. Israel has made clear that its price for any truce is a credible and permanent disarmament of Hizballah.

Who wants the job of taming Hizballah?

The Lebanese army is too weak to challenge Hizballah, although the international consensus is that it must eventually be deployed along the southern border once Hizballah has been demobilized. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have called for the deployment of an international security force to prevent Hizballah from attacking Israel, which would then allow Israel to withdraw. But with the U.S. and allied armed forces already burdened by Iraq and Afghanistan, there may not be many takers for a mission that could require going after one of the world's most accomplished guerrilla armies. And the Israelis have made clear that they envisage such a force being deployed only after Israel has cleared Hizballah out of its forward positions.

President Bush, in a candid comment to Tony Blair on what the UN should do, may have revealed another option: "What they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's over." But it's unlikely the U.S. and its Western allies, having made ejecting the Syrians from Lebanon a top priority over the the past 20 months, are now inclined to invite Damascus back to reprise its traditional role of keeping a lid on anti-Israel militants (or removing that lid when Syrian interests required). Haranguing and threatening has not helped convince Syria to do U.S. bidding in Iraq, and Damascus would likely need some tangible incentive for tamping things down in Lebanon.

Hizballah's popularity makes it hard to take down

The premise of Israel's offensive has been that military action can do the job, or create enough pressure for others to get the job done. Israel, and possibly the U.S. see it simply as a case of a radical Iran-backed army of no more than 1,000 full-time fighters holding the whole of Lebanon hostage. But the track record suggests that, even if it is forced to alter some of its tactics, Hizballah is unlikely to be destroyed by Israeli military action. That's because of Hizballah's dual nature: It is both a proxy force for others — Iran and Syria — and the popular nationalist movement of Lebanon's Shi'ites. That political base — the Shi'ites are Lebanon's largest single religious community — will make Hizballah exceedingly difficult to close down. As the U.S. has learned to its cost in Iraq, an insurgency that retains mass support of even a minority community cannot be eliminated militarily — and attempts to do so, such as the flattening of Fallujah, can even reinforce insurgent support.

Hizballah picked the current fight in pursuit of interests that do not necessarily coincide with Lebanon's — answering the call of the Arab street for a champion to punish Israel on behalf of the battered Palestinians, or possibly flexing muscles on behalf of Tehran as the nuclear showdown moves back to the U.N. Security Council. Hizballah's actions have been loudly criticized by Lebanon's Sunni, Christian and Druze leaders, but as long as its actions carry the support of its Shi'ite base, its enemies will find it difficult to dislodge the movement from the Lebanese political landscape.

Israel loses if it doesn't win

Henry Kissinger famously observed, at the height of the Vietnam era, that "the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win." The same applies to Israel and Hizballah. If Hizballah lives to fight another day, it will have won the day, not only in the eyes of its own supporters, who will cheer its prowess in withstanding the Israeli onslaught, but also in the eyes of the Israeli military command. Israel will therefore escalate its operations before it stands down. It knows diplomacy must eventually prevail, and it has no interest in maintaining direct control over southern Lebanon. Its objective, therefore, is to eliminate Hizballah's key military capabilities on the ground before any truce comes into effect.

Nor does Hizballah show any sign of buckling or retreat. Indeed, it may be firing off as much of its rocket arsenal as it can (although Israeli officials say it has used less than one-tenth so far) before an Israeli ground offensive neutralizes them by putting its own troops into a buffer zone. Hizballah mastered the art of guerrilla combat against heavily armored Israeli units in the 18-year occupation, during which they killed more than 1,000 Israeli troops. Israel's assumption is that Hizballah can be eliminated through military force; Hizballah calculates that the mounting civilian casualties and destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure will eventually compel an international referee to step in and force Israel to back down. Each will likely subject the other's assumption to the test of fire in the days ahead. —With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington